The Internet of Things, and Various Related Ethical Musings

You wake up on a cold winter’s morning. The movement sensors in your bed register that you’re awake. Your water heater starts heating up water for your shower so that it’s hot from the moment you turn it on. Your coffee boiler turns on and starts brewing coffee, just the right strength for how much sleep you got last night. Your car turns on and starts to defrost the windshield. A morning like any other.

This is the Internet of Things at work. While the scenario is a bit exaggerated, it is not too far in the future. But what exactly is the Internet of Things? I would describe it as when our devices connected over the Internet interact very tangibly with the world around us. Our laptops aren’t part of the Internet of Things, but things like the Nest Learning Thermostat are. These devices can act and interact and adapt largely without human intervention. At some point, according to some, they will become so connected that they will form a cohesive platform to be programmed. Imagine the potential. We have to think bigger than the opening scene to this post. We can automate our cars to drive themselves—this is even already being done. No, think even bigger than that. We can leave everything rote and boring to machines, “automating the mundane” to borrow a phrase. Now think even bigger. One lesson I’ve learned so far from the Internet is that when you develop something, it will be used in ways you couldn’t even imagine when designing it. We can’t even begin to understand the potential for the Internet of Things. So I keep an open mind to the idea that it will represent a fundamental way in the way we live our lives, in ways that we can’t grasp yet.

So what is this post? Some kind of fluff popular science piece where I rave about how great some new technology is, even though I don’t really understand it? No (though it’s true that I’ve only scratched the surface of understanding). I’m here to talk about ethical implications. I went to an event last Friday hosted by the Harvard Computer Science Department called “The Internet of Things”. One of the speakers that struck me most was Jim Waldo, Professor of the Practice of Computer Science at Harvard. Professor Waldo introduced the trolley car problem, explaining that there was no consensus among the general population: different schools of thought and slight changes to the circumstances change the decisions people think are correct to make about the tradeoff of human lives. And yet, somewhere in Silicon Valley, some designer of self-driving cars is building those trade-offs directly into their algorithms about which lives to prioritize if a crash is unavoidable. Engineers create policy decisions with their work.

It’s not enough to “leave it to the politicians”. Public policy is 5-20 years behind technological development, and politicians rarely understand technology well enough to make informed decisions about its regulation. If we as engineers aren’t thinking about how our technology will be used and abused, no one is.

So if the Internet of Things could represent a fundamental change in our way of life, drawing us ever closer to realizing the dream held oh so many years ago by J.C.R. Licklider of human-computer coupling, we need to be asking questions about how data will be gathered, stored, made secure, and used. What are the answers? I don’t know. Let’s find out.

 

 

 

…you didn’t really think I could make it through a post about the internet of things without some Wall-E reference, did you?

Image result for wall-e

2 Comments »

  1. Mike Smith

    October 11, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

    1

    You might take a few minutes and introduce yourself to Professor Latanya Sweeney here at Harvard. See http://latanyasweeney.org/

  2. school of applied science

    November 3, 2016 @ 11:31 am

    2

    I really love this movie Wall-E :). Thanks shared this article “The Internet of Things, and Various Related Ethical Musings”

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